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Review of “The Last Children of Tokyo”: dystopias as social commentary

Hand holding the book The Last Children of Tokyo, by Yoko Tawada.

“Labor Day” became “Being Alive Is Enough Day”

p. 44

Many people think that dystopian novels are predicting the future. That the greats like George Orwell’s 1984 are a look to the future ills of society and the world at large. However, I disagree wholeheartedly with this line of thinking. Yes, dystopian novels can predict the future, but what they do very well is hold up a microscope to society as it is today. Through exaggeration (although sometimes it doesn’t even feel that far-fetched) and hyperbolic worlds, these novels pinpoint our society’s issues and make them so large that we cannot look away. The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada, published in 2018, is a brilliant example of this.

The novel is set in Tokyo, Japan as the title suggests and is centred on the relationship between Yoshiro, a very old man well into is 100s, and Yoshiro’s grandson, Mumei who is sickly and frail. In Tawada’s world, the old don’t age or die, and the young are cursed with ill-health and short life-spans. When I read this rather thin novel, my copy is 138 pages, I thought it would easy. Yet the poetry of Tawada’s writing coupled with her social commentary make it an emotional roller coaster.

In subtle, yet confronting ways, Tawada posits questions about excessive government controls, the failure of school systems and wage stagnation, separatist political strategies, and the fatigue the general population feels from it all.

When the authorities want to throw someone in jail, all they have to do is suddenly arrest him for breaking a law that no one has bothered to obey yet.

p. 30

In a world where police brutality is rife – and I really do mean this is a problem for every single country – there are no effective ways to hold police accountable for their actions and actually bring about justice that fits the crimes. The idea of arresting people, or as Tawada puts it throwing them in jail, is also a powerful silencing tool.

Schools claiming to prepare students to pass certification exams take a steady income from monthly tuition despite the fact that their graduates, even if they pass the exams, often can’t find jobs or at best, end up settling for very low wages.

p. 39

There is global evidence that wage stagnation began in the 1970s and since then, the wages that we earn, on average for each profession, do no account for inflation or the current cost of living. There is a reason why you’re poor or feel like you can’t afford your own home – its because you should be earning a lot more than you are. With debates in the U.S. about raising the minimum wage and also talks in Australia about unemployment benefits throughout the pandemic, it is very easy to see how our current work conditions let us all down. Furthermore, most jobs require some sort of education – whether this is from university or a vocational school. The rising cost of education in many parts of the world (Europe still has, surprisingly affordable if not free education at universities and other educational schools) means it is impossible to afford the qualifications you are required to get a job. If you can somehow get a loan, then you also have to pay that debt off too. I, for example, still have my student debts from when I did my undergraduate degrees. So high costs of education and wage stagnation seem to be a great combo for our health and well being.

Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself.

p. 42

Tawada was obviously not referring to today’s current global woes, but gosh this hit me in the chest when I read it. What was supposed to be solved and celebrated through globalisation has actually caused the opposite effect. There is a rise in hyper-nationalism and separatism that worries me greatly. Instead of countries working together, we are becoming really good at pointing the finger at everyone else, and therefore doing and achieving very little.

When the public was informed that the isolation policy had already gone into effect, Yoshiro and Marika weren’t the only ones too shocked to do anything but gasp and moan.

p. 44

This last quote from Tawada’s novel is a tough one to unpack. I, just like probably anyone who is reading this has felt that kind of fatigue. If you let yourself think about it for more than a few seconds the world has some pretty terrible things in it. As everyday citizens who need to work more to pay off our study loans and overcompensate for wage stagnation, while still having children to create the next generation of workers, while trying to look after our own health and well being… Well it means we have very little to give at the end of a day. Whether it is poverty, violence against women, racism, wage theft, mega-corporations polluting our plant, or corrupt politicians, there are too many problems to process them all at once. So often, we do nothing. I don’t know how to combat this, how to make everyone see that as a collective, we the people, have the power to change a lot of things. Yet, instead, we take these horrible changes in our stride and question very little.

When I wanted to review this book, I knew that I couldn’t just talk about what was inside the novel without addressing how I feel the novel critiques our society today. This book has haunted me since I read it. I also read it in the peak of Victoria’s long lockdown last year, which did not help my mood at all. It has taken me almost five months to process this book. So while I do think it is a very worthwhile read, hold off on reading it if you are in the thick of some lockdown blues.

I would love to know what dystopian novels you have been reading? Please share in the comments below! As always, share the reading love.